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Radio: Local News

Instead of visiting the scene of the crime, as I did when the Republicans assembled in Philadelphia, I convened with the Democrats over my receiving sets. Sometimes I used radio and television simultaneously. You get mighty queer effects when you shut off the voice channel on your television set and let the radio commentator supply the background to the scene appearing on the “screen.” Or, you can just turn off all the noise and see how foolish the man on television looks as he throws himself into his act. It’s a bizarre sport, but so is a convention.

Fantasy has crept into New York local radio, and it’s standing dish-night on its head. The quizmaster of a new WNEW program is Jack Barry, the producer of Mutual’s “Juvenile Jury,” who recently substituted “Life Begins at 80” as a summer replacement for the tot show. He’s doing another switch on “You Can Lose Your Shirt,” where guests, instead of winning prizes for answering questions correctly, pay for guessing wrong.

At his premiere, for instance, Barry lined up Bennett Cerf of Random House-Modern Library; a confectioner whose advertisements are known to New York subway riders by the slogan, “Don't talk, chum; chew Topp’s gum”; and the owner of a celebrated restaurant chain. Each of these gentlemen had to show that he had $100 in cash on his person. Each time he missed a question, he paid at rates ranging from $10 to $50.

Everybody connected with the show kicks back his salary, earnings or commissions. That includes the station, which gives the time gratis. Even the sponsor, a distributor of washing machines, contributes to the kitty. Whoever answers the jackpot question nominates the charity which is to receive all the swag.

WNEW is a highly profitable enterprise, grossing $2,500,000 annually. The station has been called radio’s Giant Jukebox, yet it is also one of the very top public-service-program producers. A few years ago, WNEW put the American Negro Theatre on the air, thus being the first American station to establish the principle that the microphone knows no color. Later, it promoted the “Little Songs on Big Subjects” that adapted the commercial jingle to the cause of tolerance. “Lose Your Shirt” is intended purely as satire, but it could stand copying.

Being in a homey mood, I want to pay tribute this week to one other local station, WNYC. Back around 1924, Grover Whalen, New York’s perpetual greeter, decided that some of his welcomes ought to be broadcast. He persuaded reluctant politicians to ante up some money for a radio station. Until Fiorello H. LaGuardia became mayor in 1933, WNYC was, like most other municipal stations, the voice of backroom boys—in this case, Tammany.

LaGuardia brought in two men who transformed WNYC’s transmitter into a people’s outlet. Morris S. Novik (he now heads the FM setup for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) and Seymour N. Siegel gave this local station a national reputation. WNYC is non-commercial; it is subsidized by the city, and its budget is small. But Novik and Siegel have done wonders with their shoestring.

Through the years, they have developed much fine talent that has since gone into the commercial field. If you want names, I give you WNEW’s programvice president, Ted Cott; producer-director-writer Mitchell Grayson; and, for a change of style, Jack Benny’s Dennis Day. Siegel, WNYC’s program head since LaGuardia’s third day as mayor, is now its director.

From time to time, “agony” shows, offering free medical, legal or even psychiatric advice, have appeared on the air. Stations or networks broadcasting such shows defend the fare by asserting that there is no reason why trained professionals in medicine, psychiatry or social work should “monopolize” those fields. Now one such show, Mutual’s “Alexander’s Mediation Board,” has proved a point about this type of “social work.”

Last Christmas, the “Mediation Board” had a guest with a sad story. The man said he had once been in jail. Should he tell his children? Alexander and his board advised that he should not. During the program, it developed that the forlorn guest was broke. No direct appeal was made, but he received from listeners $13,500 in cash, plus 2,200 boxes of clothing.

Now Alexander, aided by New York State's Attorney General, has asked a court to appoint a special guardian to protect $2,250 in the interests of the jailbird’s ten-year-old son. That’s about all there is of the $13,500—and no one knows what happened to the clothing. It turns out that the man whose “agony” Alexander sponsored on the air had a police record dating back to 1917. At the time of the broadcast he was under indictment for second-degree larceny and forgery.

It is to Alexander’s credit that he is trying, as he says, to salvage “the faith of the radio contributors.” But if listeners would back the reputable social-welfare organizations that have always protested this type of programming, they would not have their faith so rudely tested.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.